The new landowner, redevelopment firm Environmental Liability Transfer, is bound by the same agreement to keep toxic chemicals on the site from getting into the water. The St. Louis-based company, which specializes in projects involving contamination, said it's likely that certain areas of the property will be cleaned beyond that mandate.
"Customers and tenants may have site specific requirements beyond the Consent Decree that we will address," said Randall Jostes, the company's CEO, in an email. "It is important to note that extensive work to date has demonstrated that the actual footprint for active remediation is quite small in relation to the property available for development. There are many potential parcels that are not impaired and can be put into productive use now."
But the Chesapeake Bay Foundation takes issue with the state's contention that most of the remediation is done, saying there have been insufficient assessments. Foundation officials also argue that the 1997 consent decree took too long to be struck, did not go far enough at the time and was not properly enforced.
The foundation is fighting in court for a more comprehensive assessment offshore than the EPA plans. It's "inexcusable" that 16 years after the agreement, regulators still are planning how to investigate contamination in nearby waters, said Christine Tramontana, litigation counsel at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
"Bethlehem Steel was such a powerhouse in Baltimore that I think [environmental regulators] never wanted to come down hard on them," she said. "The agencies knew about contamination on the property as far back as the 1980s and maybe even sooner."
Jay Apperson, a Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman, responded that the plant is "perhaps the most complex environmental cleanup site in Maryland."
"This is a result of 100 years of industry, much of it predating modern environmental laws, so cleanup is a huge undertaking," he said. "We understand people's concerns about the environmental issues and the pace at which they've been addressed, but at this point, a majority of the work has been done and MDE will continue to ensure that public health is protected."
The decades of pollution split an otherwise tight-knit community into two groups — the people pressing for more aggressive remediation and the people who feared an expensive cleanup would imperil the good jobs there.
But in the end, cleanup mandates weren't the steel mill's biggest problem. When Bethlehem Steel sought bankruptcy protection in 2001, two years before it ceased to exist, the company didn't blame environmental costs for its woes. It pointed to cheap imports and a difficult economy.
And final operator RG Steel didn't mention cleanup costs when it filed for bankruptcy protection last year, instead blaming its cash crunch on a tough steel market and a breach of contract.
'Get my family out'
Christine Gangi lived less than a mile from the plant for 13 years, battling the kish that blew into her pool, yard and home. She spent years fighting with Bethlehem Steel and trying to get state and federal environmental regulators to do more.
All along, she said, MDE officials told her that the kish was just a nuisance and that living near the plant wasn't hazardous.
But she worried as her children developed health problems. Her youngest child had seizures as a baby, she said. Her middle child developed asthma. Her eldest, age 10 when they moved in, began suffering from frequent bouts of strep throat.
Eventually, Gangi said, she rarely let them go outside. They couldn't even swim in their pool.
"It was very stressful on the family," she said. "If my children wanted to go to a friend's house, I had to be reassured, 'They're going to be inside.' "
Gangi initially thought the 1997 cleanup agreement would help, but she quickly lost hope. In 1998, she and her husband sold the house on Sparrows Point Road that they'd spent years remodeling and moved to White Marsh.
"I had to get my family out of there," she said.
She sees the strain of those years, and the upheaval of the move, as a factor in the breakup of her marriage. And she still doesn't think of White Marsh as home. Sparrows Point was home. She didn't want to leave.
"It was a beautiful home," Gangi said. "It was an absolutely beautiful home."